Skip navigation

Friday February 22, 2013

He made Saskatchewan steel company into an international powerhouse

Argumentative, intellectual CEO of Ipsco Inc. was also passionately engaged in public-policy debates

When he was a cabinet minister, and then premier in Saskatchewan, Roy Romanow would often collide with the most prominent industrialist in the province, the chief executive officer of the big Regina steel company, Ipsco Inc.

The CEO, Roger Phillips, was an argumentative, sometimes abrasive character who could get under the skin of the New Democratic Party premier. "There were days when I left those meetings vowing never to meet with him again," said Mr. Romanow, premier from 1991 to 2001.

But he would continue to meet - and he would seek out Mr. Phillips's thoughts because he knew that the CEO was not only the manager who saved and built Ipsco into a North American steel powerhouse, but a passionate Canadian and public-policy enthusiast who grasped the big picture.

The two men - the free marketer and the social democrat - developed a bond that continued after both retired. Mr. Romanow loved "the spice of conversation" with Mr. Phillips, and he knew it would usually be about ideas, and it was never personal. "He knew how to conduct business, but he also knew the business operated in a society that had other concerns. He understood the crashing waves that would impact Ipsco."

Mr. Phillips, who retired from Ipsco in 2002, died at 73 on Jan. 30 of metastatic cancer of the liver, a disease he researched and fought with the same intensity with which he built Ipsco into what was, for a time, the most valuable Canadian steel company, overshadowing more established Eastern Canadian counterparts. The company was sold five years after Mr. Phillips retired and the Regina unit is now part of the Russian steel giant Evraz.

Mr. Phillips was never a narrow corporate bureaucrat, but waded into the great debates of his time, in defence of national unity, and in pursuit of North American free trade, which he felt Canada had to embrace in order to thrive. He knew this country well, having been born in Ottawa, spent his boyhood in rural Quebec, gone to university in Montreal, and worked two decades with aluminum giant Alcan before shifting to the Prairies to take command of Ipsco.

Unlike many executives transplanted to Saskatchewan, on retirement he did not hightail it to some warm clime or coastal retreat, but stayed in Regina, although his and his wife Ann's love of sailing would sometimes take them out of the country.

Mr. Phillips's boyhood was spent largely in Arvida, Que., the aluminum company town in the Saguenay region. The word Arvida is a contraction of Arthur Vining Davis, president of U.S. aluminum giant Alcoa, who founded the town as a model industrial community. But Alcoa, under U.S. anti-trust pressure, spun off its Canadian interests in the late 1920s, and Roger's father came to Arvida as a research physicist for what had become Alcan.

Arvida, with its coterie of engineers, managers and their families, was a hothouse for Canadian talent, turning out bankers and professionals who made great careers elsewhere. Among them were the Eberts brothers - Jake, an engineer who became a Hollywood producer, and Gordon, a prominent Bay Street investment banker. Gordon Eberts said the relative isolation of Arvida was a spur to success: "There was an encouragement to get the hell out."

The Eberts' boyhood friend Roger Phillips took his love of science to McGill University for a degree in physics and math, but he was no science nerd. He worked at the campus newspaper, the McGill Daily, and was editor-in-chief in 1959-60. He later recalled resisting attempts by the student council and university administration to influence editorial direction.

Mr. Phillips's passion for good writing - he would later collaborate in writing his own annual reports - and lively discourse flourished at the Daily. As editor-in-chief, he would wander over to the reporters' desks to debate such contentious issues as religion, and he caught the eye of one of the student journalists, Ann Wilson from Hudson, Que. A group of McGill journalists attended the Canadian University Press's national conference in Quebec City, where Mr. Phillips rubbed shoulders with his counterparts, such as Ed Roberts, the Newfoundlander who headed the University of Toronto's Varsity, and Joe Clark, editor of the University of Alberta's Gateway and a future prime minister. Ann Wilson was impressed with her young colleague; The two became close and married in 1962.

Back to top